New political eras have a kind of Robert's Rules of Order rhythm to them. First on the agenda: old business. Then on to the new.
And that's the point at which we find ourselves in the Obama era -- we are about to bring the unfinished business to a close and move on to the new stuff. After the low-hanging fruit, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair
Pay Act, and the three economic emergencies (banks, cars, and recession), health reform was the great task left incomplete by the previous Democratic administration and its predecessors. The policy structure and political strategy for health reform had also been put in place well before the 2008 election, by think tanks and advocacy coalitions and by the lessons of previous failures. Reform of the student-loan system, which brought an 18-year battle to a surprisingly quiet end, was also enacted in the safe shadow of health reform.
Disappointment in the administration has been driven by the momentum theory of the presidency -- the widely held view that anything that wasn't achieved during the first 100 days, or at least the first year, wouldn't happen. But political capital is not merely acquired by winning an election and then spent down. Rather, presidents build their ability to govern by governing. And the most memorable achievements of transformative presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan often came later, after the urgency and experimentation of the early months. It was the Second New Deal, from 1934 and 1935, that created the institutions that shaped future prosperity.
Obama was always the political equivalent of a long-term investor, better suited to the long, patient work of an eight-year journey than for the frantic, understaffed improvisation of 100 days. The perpetual worry in the first year was that, under the pressure of economic crisis, political backlash, and the heavy lift of health reform, Obama would never be able to get to this point, where his strengths would be most fruitful. To be sure, not every bit of old business is resolved, or resolved correctly -- U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and the Bush administration's damage to civil liberties remain open wounds.
But on most domestic issues, we can move into a new phase. In the first phase, what mattered most were energy, pressure, mobilization, and tactics to evade the political obstacles presented by Republicans. In the next phase, those things will still matter, but there is also a need to develop new ideas and strategies, to design the programs and initiatives that -- along with health reform -- will truly represent this era's legacy. This is the moment when policy smarts pay off.
What will be the agenda for this next phase of the presidency? After financial regulatory reform (on which much work will remain after the pending legislation), implementation of health reform, and further progress on climate change, it's best to describe core domestic and economic policy in terms of questions:
How can we shape the relationship between workers, employers, and other economic forces to provide a sense of economic and personal security that allows more people to take risks and participate in the economy? Do we have a better response than "get more education" -- the answer that proved insufficient in the 1990s -- for people and communities who, even in good times, struggle to find economic opportunity?
How can we reshape the political process so that citizens can feel engaged and relevant but majorities can also get things done? Open government, well-regulated lobbying, and even campaign-finance reform are too limited to address the scope of the breakdown in our political institutions and the language of citizenship.
How do we address the long-term federal budget deficit in a way that does more than prevent cuts to Social Security and Medicare but opens up the possibility for more creative governance? How do we raise revenue in a way that also achieves social goals?
Are there new ways to lift families and communities out of poverty, now that the limits of the push for homeownership have been fully revealed?
Can we restore competition in economic sectors that are increasingly dominated by monopolies or oligopolies?
If these questions seem broad and open-ended, it's because they are. At various think tanks and in the lower-profile corners of the administration, there are creative people thinking about the solutions to these problems, but in almost all cases, specific policy responses have yet to crystallize. When they do, the answers to these questions will not only shape the next phase of Obama's presidency but create the legacy for our era that will be remembered 70 years from now.